ppThinking across borders: new participatory methods for ETHICOBOTS

Zoonoses are slippery. They cross borders – between disciplines, localities, sectors and species – quickly and easily. They are a macro challenge facing an increasingly globalised world, but also severely damaging for individuals and families. They are a grave risk to human and animal health, but they can also affect almost every other aspect of life, from food preparation to international governance.

For social scientists, this is both daunting and beguiling. Daunting because the multi-scalar nature of the problem means that designing methodologies and analytical frameworks is tricky – where should we draw the line about who should be included in the research? How can we capture the huge diversity of experiences of zoonoses, as well as approaches to managing them?


ETHICOBOTS Social Science Team

But the challenge is also a beguiling one. Researching a disease like bTB is like a passport to cross borders: an unravelling thread that provides insights into the many different challenges faced in everyday life. This builds a networked understanding of how something as tiny as a pathogen can have huge influence on the future direction of family, community, national and international life.

It was with this multi-dimensional challenge in mind that Work Packages 2 and 5 – along with members of other Ethicobots work packages – met in Addis in September, to undertake a training course in Participatory Epidemiology. Led by Barbara Wieland from ILRI, the aim of the training was to develop participatory methods to understand how the challenges of bTB for human and animal health relate to local approaches to risk, livelihoods and decision-making. Because bTB can take a long time to manifest in both cattle and humans, and because its impacts are not immediately obvious, it was crucial to think about bTB as embedded in a much wider networks of trade, consumption, health behaviours and farm management.


A Holdstein Friesian dairy cow

Over the three days, we discussed many of the challenges facing commercial farms, smallholders, farmworkers and associated families. We talked about trade routes and abattoirs, why people like to drink raw milk and problems of obtaining cattle feed. We debated what is the worst disease for a cattle farm to experience and what actions a farmer might take. Gradually, we developed focus group methods for researching these themes. These included mapping exercises to understand formal and informal cattle trade networks, seasonal calendars to gather perceptions on seasonality of health and economic risks, and ranking exercises, to see how participants view the severity of different diseases for animals and humans.

We tested these out in role play exercises, taking it in turns to be facilitators and research subjects. This was often hilarious as well as informative, and we quickly learned that no one likes to be asked in public ‘What did your last cow die of?’


“So, what did your last cow die of?!”

The next stage is to pilot our new methods in the field, learn from our mistakes and to refine our tools further as the new participatory data comes in. We will start with focus groups of smallholders and farmworkers. We plan to develop further techniques for working with farm owners as well as vets, healthworkers and policy makers.

The qualitative findings of the participatory research will provide new opportunities for interrogating the survey data that has already been collected. It will also provide a vital contextual framework for developing appropriate interventions and control strategies for bovine TB in Ethiopia.

Constance Smith 19/10/16

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‘Coffee With Milk, Please!’

Stefan‘How would you like your coffee?’

Despite my longstanding collaboration with the mother country of coffee, I am not a drinker myself. However, many would answer: ‘With milk please!’

During a recent visit to Addis Ababa, I discovered the Ethiopian Business Review, a magazine featuring one of the many beautiful Ethiopian women on the front cover – Tsedey Asrat. This lady is the Founder and CEO of ‘Kaldi’s Coffee’, one of Ethiopia’s best-known business brands.

It was very interesting to read about the career of this successful woman and the strategies of Kaldi’s. One that caught my attention was the fact that Kaldi’s now runs its own dairy – Loni Dairy – to secure the supply of dairy products essential for this successful business (we passed their dairy unit in Selale during our visit last September). Kaldi’s had received milk of varying qualities from their suppliers and needed a more consistent product to satisfy customers. Now Kaldi’s is a big business chain which is expanding abroad – Dubai next! (But will they serve coffee with cow or camel milk over there?)

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In 6th Century Ethiopia, a goat herder named Kaldi is said to have discovered coffee when his goats became strangely energised after eating coffee berries.

The establishment and growth of companies like Kaldi’s are important for the Ethiopian economy as a whole; they will help reach the Government’s ambitions plans to achieve middle income status by 2025. However, it has already been recognised that the current backbone of the economy is with smallholder farmers who are keeping the vast majority of Ethiopians in work, producing crop and livestock products for themselves and the markets. Kaldi’s may have started their own diary but they are still dependent on milk producers and mainly smallholder dairy units, as we learnt from our visit to Selale.

The same magazine also published an article by Dr Tsegaye Tegenu (lecturer at Uppsala University, Sweden) who discussed the ‘growth role of the smallholder farmers in Ethiopia’. Most smallholder farmers in developing countries do not focus on high volume and high turnover to pay back their investments. They are demographic units producing to ensure household food supply and cash needs; while farmers in developed countries usually target larger investment units or business firms where all production goes to market.

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Just as in the West, coffee has a central role in Ethiopian society

Dr Tsegaye analysed a study by the World Bank which reported remarkable growth in the Ethiopian agricultural sector over the past 10 years. He concluded that growth was not driven by new technologies or investments but rather related to an increase in management skills and the number of farm workers per hectare – the latter linked to a rapidly growing population. The cultivated land in Ethiopia increased by 27% in the last decade, while the number of smallholders increased by 39%. Data from CSA Ethiopia suggest that the average agricultural household governs only 1.1 hectares of land.

These figures suggest the need for concentration of land ownership to enable farmers to grow their business and to increase the productivity in the sector. A transition towards a modernised agricultural sector would mean higher efficiency with reduced employment (e.g. due to job displacement through mechanization); as a consequence this would push people to look for work elsewhere, leading to further urbanisation.

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Making coffee

Leading the country in such direction would take time and pose many challenges. And as milk consumption tracks the movement of the people – from rural Ethiopia towards urban centers – milk production would likely follow. This could lead to an increased number of dairy farms around towns and cities with intensively reared dairy cattle to give higher productivity. In this scenario, our work in ETHICOBOTS on exploring control strategies for bovine TB is likely to become even more important as intensification leads to increased risk of disease transmission.

It will be very interesting to follow the development of the agricultural sector in Ethiopia, particularly in the dairy sector. It’s in everyone’s interest to improve the livelihoods of farmers and to secure the milk you may need for your coffee.

Stefan Berg 30/08/16


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Clash of the (multidisciplinary) Titans

TilayeSince the 1960s, multidisciplinary research has been hailed in academic circles. Projects are often designed in a multidisciplinary fashion where different perspectives, theories, paradigms and methods come together, solving problems with the benefit of a variety of perspectives.

Yet, working in a multidisciplinary environment is not easy. People from different disciplines have different perceptions. They come with different theories, disciplinary orientations and methodologies. Their overriding perceptions are fashioned by their own respective disciplines. This can create a lack of cohesion, cause conflict, and sometimes prejudices among multidisciplinary teams.

We have faced some of these challenges in our ETHICOBOTS project. Scientists from different disciplinary backgrounds such as veterinary science, human epidemiology, agricultural economics, anthropology and other social sciences were involved in creating a multidisciplinary questionnaire designed to create a baseline database. The database contains farmers’ socioeconomic backgrounds, animal husbandry practices, human and animal disease management practices as well as livestock consumption patterns.

“…working in a multidisciplinary environment is not easy. People from different disciplines have different perceptions.”

In addition, there were also differences in terms of organizational traditions as the consortium is made up of researchers from various universities, research institutions and development organizations. It is also undeniable that there was a North-South element and the power relations associated with it. As a result, the processes of designing a decisive questionnaire took more than six months and passed through a number of “final” versions before it was completed.

Colleagues from universities, the North and from biophysical science backgrounds tended to focus more on the academic aspects, while those from the South focused on the social sciences. Research institutes and development organizations considered the practicalities and added much value through field experience. For instance, the main concern amongst the virus actors was the length of the questionnaire.

Those coming from universities and with biophysical backgrounds lacking experience on socioeconomic surveys were inclined to focus more on textbook recommendations which caution the use of lengthy questionnaires. Textbooks fear the length can contribute to respondent fatigue and compromise the reliability of the data. Hence, there were often recommendations to remove questions and even whole sections from the questionnaire which were considered less important.

On the contrary, researchers with extensive field experience on handling such questionnaires were not worried about the length of the questionnaire and were confident that it could be handled without respondent fatigue. They insisted on keeping many questions which the others suggested removing because they thought that these are very important to meet their work package objectives. As a result it took quite a long time to agree up on the length of the questionnaire.


There were differences in the use of technology. The EIAR team having extensive experience of questionnaire based social science research insisted on using Computer Assisted Personal Interview devices, (CAPI) while those from the biophysical background showed reluctance to use computerized data collection tool for fear that data collected can easily be lost. Yet, the EIAR researchers insisted on using CAPIs indicating that they are more reliable than traditional hardcopy. They can help to minimize human error and prevent skipping questions while interviewing. Moreover, they were also able to convince their colleagues from the biophysical background that using CAPI minimizes the cost associated with data cleaning and entry.

“important lessons have been learned by all involved as to how to work in a multidisciplinary team where one has to acknowledge other perspectives and listen to voices other than his or her own.”

Adopting CAPI created other problems, such as how to share the data. How would we share the data with everyone in an appropriate format that would be comprehendible and accessible; could we share the data in real time when collecting the data from the field?

Various discussions led to the implementation of openclinica: a database format predesigned for data sharing. During discussions, IT experts from different organizations battled over which software platform should be used for data collection and data base management. This is, again, due to differences in tradition, experience and the tools used for data management among the various organizations involved in the project.

To conclude, one can say that aside from lengthening the process and causing some disciplinary friction, it was very important in the success of designing an optimum length questionnaire with good content validity and reliability. This was proved through an early pilot study. One can also say that important lessons have been learned by all involved as to how to work in a multidisciplinary team where one has to acknowledge other perspectives and listen to voices other than his or her own. This process has allowed us all to work in a more constructive manner.

Tilaye Deneke 17/05/16

Image Credit: special thanks to Barry Clarke for donating the above images.